In May this year, at an auction house in New York, an 1895 painting titled The Scream was sold for almost $120m to an anonymous collector bidding via telephone. As the hammer came down and the sale ended, cheers reverberated around the room. Nobody had paid that much money for a painting at auction before.
The Scream is Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's most famous work, and it's one of the few paintings, like Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Andy Warhol's Marilyn, that have transcended the art world and achieved major cultural relevance. If you've seen Home Alone, the 1990 comedy caper that made a child star out of Macaulay Culkin, you'll no doubt recognise it. Culkin famously mimicked the hands-to-face action of The Scream's protagonist, although the actor was screaming in reaction to the unsuspected burn of aftershave, not the extreme mental anguish troubling the artist's ghostly figure.
Born in Norway, Munch (1863—1944) began his career painting in a conventional manner but, after trips to Paris and Berlin, soon became interested in the work of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin. Instead of painting the world around him he began to seek to express his innermost feelings and desires by creating swirling, energetic artworks simmering with his intense passions and anxieties. These paintings made him a founder of the style known as Expressionism, in which emotive distortions and exaggerated colours are used to achieve maximum expressiveness.
Munch actually made four versions of The Scream at different points in his career, and each was an effort to represent the anxiety from which he suffered for most of his life. The version sold in May is the only one that features a poem written by the artist to explain the painting's inspiration, hence the mind-boggling $120m price tag.
If you had $120m to spend on one piece of art, what work would you buy?